We love to make it, read about it and talk about it, and we are surrounded by more of it than ever before. Food. But what is the real picture? We may be obsessed by it, but can we actually cook? We may know more about food than in the past, but do we just duck out for a burger more often than we care to admit? Read on for the not always palatable nitty gritty.

The economics of eating

Let's start with the good news. In the long term, incomes in Australia have risen faster than food prices, which means households are spending a shrinking proportion of their budgets on food and drink. Household expenditure figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that in 2009-10, food and non-alcoholic drinks made up 16.5 per cent of household spend, compared with 20 per cent in 1984.

Why are we fatter than ever and less capable of preparing food for ourselves?
Why are we fatter than ever and less capable of preparing food for ourselves? Photo: William Meppem

''In real terms, spending on food has increased 13 per cent [over the past 20 years], while incomes have risen 36 per cent,'' according to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) 2012 FOODmap report.

And more good news - food prices in Australia are rising at a slower rate than many parts of the world. For much of the past two decades, the consumer price index for food in Australia has been lower than the majority of OECD countries (more than 30 countries) and the OECD average. Food inflation has been below 1 per cent for the past two financial years, compared with an average annual rate of 3 per cent in the decade to 2012-13 and a 10-year average in the 1980s of close to 8 per cent.

Food retail (supermarkets, grocery, specialist food and liquor) and food service (cafes, restaurants, catering and takeaway) have been among the strongest performers in retail, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The average annual growth rate in the decade to 2012-13 was 3.7 per cent in food service and 2.9 per cent in food retail, compared with 2.2 per cent for the total retail sector.

The long-term boom

When you look at expenditure patterns over the longer term, Australians emerge as big spenders on eating out. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that household spend on meals away from home has jumped more than 55 per cent in real terms since the 1980s, from $42 per week in 1984 to $66 in 2010. Where households spent around one-fifth of their weekly food budget on eating out in 1984, today that figure is closer to one-third.

A Commbank Signals' report in March found that the average Aussie eats out around four times a month and spends $70 a week at cafes, takeaway shops and restaurants.

''If we go back historically, say over the last 20 years, we do see increased amounts of eating out because of convenience, because of busy schedules, because of changing family lifestyle and women increasingly in the workplace,'' says food ethics researcher Rachel Ankeny from the University of Adelaide.

Shock waves

But strong long-term growth rates can mask the impact of short-term shocks, particularly in the cafe, restaurant and takeaway sector, which is far more vulnerable to consumer sentiment - and so endures greater volatility - than supermarkets and grocery. When times get tough, it's businesses in food service that are often hit particularly hard.

''It's a discretionary purchase. You have to eat but you don't have to eat at a flash restaurant. Or if you do have to eat at a restaurant, you don't have to order the $50 steak; you can get by with the $10 lasagne,'' says Dr David McKinna, director of market analytics company McKinna et al.

''It's also seasonal and weather-related. It can be impacted by election events or major international incidents like 9/11 or a bombing that causes people to feel more conservative and stay at home.''

In 2008-09, when the global financial crisis struck, the cafe and restaurant sector contracted 3.8 per cent in real terms, according to government statistics. Supermarket and grocery, on the other hand, grew 4.6 per cent.

''When the global financial crisis came through in 2008-09 there was a marked change in the way Australian households spent their food dollar. What I call 'share of stomach' shifted sharply from eating out to eating at home,'' says Martin Kneebone, managing director of Freshlogic, a food market analytics company which surveys 15,000 respondents a year to track industry trends.

''Over the course of about six months around 3.5 per cent of food spend moved from eating out to [supermarket and grocery] retail. People economised.''

In an industry then worth more than $130 billion (it is now worth $140 billion), that's almost $4.6 billion. The federal government's FOODmap report, produced by Freshlogic, is unequivocal: ''The economic pressure on households has seen significant change in the composition of food spending, with more meals eaten at home … because of a general perception that buying food from a supermarket or other grocery outlet is cheaper than eating out.''

That people often start focusing their activities (and bringing their plates) closer to home during times of uncertainty is a trend observed worldwide, according to Ankeny.

“With all the uncertainty out there, people look for ways to gain control. One of the things you have control over is what you put in your mouth,” she says.

“In the United States for example, there was a documented rise in places serving so-called ‘comfort food’ after 9/11. In the UK, there was a documented shift in food patterns resulting from the mad cow disease epidemic – a shift to ‘safer’ eating patterns, including vegetarianism.”

Introducing the post-GFC diner

The impact of that sudden blow was swift and deep. Many restaurants disappeared. Others were forced to adjust to a new breed of diner: the post-GFC diner.

''People haven't stopped eating out. They're just going to less costly outlets,'' McKinna says.

''Where people used to have a three-course meal, now they might have one course. Instead of buying an expensive bottle of wine, they'll take their own.''

Spend on fast food has increased by 23 per cent over the past four years, while spending at restaurants fell by 9 per cent, according to the Commbank Signals study. Similarly, DAFF statistics show the 2008-09 financial crisis had the opposite impact on the takeaway sector as on cafes and restaurants, with takeaway expanding 4.8 per cent in real terms, compared with a 3.8 per cent contraction for cafe and restaurant.

''Consumers are increasingly choosing the more convenient and casual dining experience,'' says Commbank Signals economist Diana Mousina. Statistics from the Dimmi Annual Dining Index by Citibank back the trend, showing that bookings nationwide are up 3.2 per cent on last year, but spend per diner continues to plummet. The national average in 2013 was $54 a diner, compared with $59 two years ago.

''What we saw evolve [post-GFC] was more of the casual walk-up restaurant. They still did good food but they got more seatings per night and they quite successfully and quite quickly, really, changed what was on offer,'' Kneebone says.

''The amount of white table we had in every capital city except Perth came under pressure and contracted. Some white table entrepreneurs morphed into that casual restaurant style … The business lunch is now the morning coffee.''

The lazy cook

With demand for convenience increasingly a driving force, supermarkets saw the opportunity and began promoting their ability to make cooking easy with competitively priced, pre-prepared ingredients.

''The question is what they really mean by 'cooking'. People are using various sorts of convenience products, bringing them home and putting them together,'' says food ethics researcher Ankeny.

''A lot of ways cooking is marketed hinges on bringing things together … But other people would say we're seeing a real skill decline. People are able to put things together but they can't actually cook a meal.''

A Marion's Kitchen survey found two in three Australians prefer to cook at home to save money. But it also found that despite the popularity of curries among home cooks, 82 per cent of respondents ''would never make curry paste from scratch'' and one in five couldn't name a single ingredient that goes into curry paste.

"Work/life balance patterns have changed such that people are relying increasingly on the convenience of processed food," Ankeny says.

The rise of the foodie

We may not exactly be walking the walk when it comes to cooking, but we're sure as hell talking the talk … and in a nation where one's knowledge and preferences when it comes to food and drink have gained unprecedented value, foodies are soaking up the spotlight.

Numerous factors have converged to bring food knowledge and food choices - what University of Adelaide food historian Barbara Santich calls ''gastronomic capital'' - to the fore. These include the relaxation of liquor laws from the 1960s, the influx of migrants bringing new cuisines, leaps in food production efficiency, rising affluence and an explosion in overseas travel. Not to mention the meteoric rise of television cooking shows like MasterChef, which first aired in 2009 - around the same time that economic uncertainty was helping to rekindle interest in cooking at home.

Today, it's not just about knowing what and how to eat. The contemporary foodie cares about sustainability, ethical trade, the environment, nutrition and where and how the food was produced. But, as Santich warns: ''A lot of these things are really only relevant to people who have the luxury of choice and the luxury of being able to express preferences.''

Which is why, for the majority of Australians, the real picture is far less palatable.

Eating ourselves sick

How is it that at a time when public knowledge of and interest in food and nutrition has never been greater, we're fatter than ever?

Dr Tim Gill, principal research fellow at The Boden Institute at the University of Sydney, draws a parallel with levels of physical activity, which, along with diet, is the behaviour that most influences weight gain.

''In Australia more people participate in sport than ever but we have our lowest levels of total physical activity. It's exactly the same in terms of diet,'' he says. ''It's food as entertainment. It's a spectator sport. Yes, we love to talk about it, we love to be seen to be part of that culture, we like to have access to a wide variety of different foods, but … people no longer have the capacity to understand and prepare food the way we used to.''

Around 60 per cent of adults and one in four children are overweight or obese, and the National Health and Medical Research Council predicts that by 2025, 83 per cent of men and 75 per cent of women will be overweight or obese if current trends continue.

''The diet now is based on processed foods, foods that have calories added to them, where food is relatively cheap and bad food even cheaper. It's widely available, it's heavily marketed … Anywhere you go, there's food,'' Gill says. Take your local supermarket: Back in the 1970s it had 3000-4000 food items; now it has 80,000 - and yet variety has hardly improved because most of those items are essentially the same: manufactured foods based on wheat flour, sugar and fat, he adds.

We know deep down we can't have our cake and eat it too. But when cake is so cheap, convenient and abundant, it sure is hard to stop at one.